Caldera, Louis: 1956—: Educational Administrator
Louis Caldera: 1956—: Educational administrator
Louis Caldera made a surprise return to his first career when U.S. President Bill Clinton appointed him to serve as secretary of the Army in 1998. A West Point graduate and former army captain, Caldera proved both an enthusiastic and somewhat maverick leader, stressing the need for this branch of the military to provide better educational opportunities for its rank-and-file soldiers as well as officer corps; doing so, he argued, would create a smart, prepared force ready for the twenty-first century and its global challenges. Caldera often spoke publicly about the military and the chances for advancement it offered to minorities, and once called it the most integrated institution in the United States.
This dedication to the military and its character-building aspects reflected Caldera's own humble origins as the son of Mexican immigrants in an El Paso, Texas family. St. Petersburg Times journalist Paul De la Garza asserted that "Caldera's life story is the kind from which political legends are crafted." Born in 1956, the second of five children, Caldera grew up in a bilingual household that struggled financially for many years. When he was five, his parents moved the family to East Los Angeles. Upon entering kindergarten, Caldera spoke so little English that school officials suggested to his parents that he might be developmentally disabled. His father resolved to correct this impression, and strongly emphasized the need for all of the children to learn English. Caldera once recalled that his father even liked to have them call the time and weather services on the telephone to improve their skills.
Rose From Cadet to Army Secretary
Caldera recalled his early years and the shame he felt when his parents were forced to turn to food stamps at times to feed the children. "Kids like me weren't supposed to go to college, weren't supposed to succeed," he said in the interview with De la Garza, citing an uncle in Mexico who was a metallurgist as one of his earliest role models. "I was really determined that a kid from my background could achieve those things." A studious teen, he scored well on the Scholastic Aptitude Test in high school, and won a spot at the U.S. military academy for the Army, West Point. This four-year college in upstate New York and training ground for officers, like its counterparts at Annapolis, Maryland, and Colorado's Air Force Academy, was notoriously difficult to enter, and even more challenging for cadets once inside. But Caldera survived his four years, graduating in 1978 and entering the Army as a second lieutenant. He served five years, finishing as a captain and earning several honors and decorations along the way, including the Meritorious Service Medal.
At a Glance . . .
Born on April 1, 1956, in El Paso, TX; son of Benjamin Luis (a hairdresser) and Soledad Caldera; married to Eva Orlebeke (an attorney); children: Allegra, Sophia, Camille. Education: U.S. Military Academy at West Point, B.S., 1978; Harvard University, M.B.A., 1987, J.D., 1987. Politics: Democrat. Military Service: U.S. Army, commissioned second lieutenant, 1978, attained rank of captain before 1983 discharge.
Career: O'Melveny and Myers, attorney, 1987-89; Buchalter, Nemer, Fields and Younger, attorney, 1990-91; served as deputy counsel for Los Angeles County, 1991-92; elected to the California State Assembly representing 46th District, 1992-97; Corporation for National Service, managing director and chief operating officer, 1997-98; US Secretary of the Army 1998-00; became vice chancellor for university advancement in the California State University system, Long Beach, 2001–.
Awards: Awarded several military honors and decorations, including the Meritorious Service Medal.
Address: Office— Office of the Chancellor, California State University, 401 Golden Shore, Long Beach, CA 90802.
After his stint with the Army ended, Caldera earned dual law and business degrees from Harvard University in 1987. He practiced law at the firm of O'Melveny and Myers, spending two years there before a stint in the U.S. Army Reserves and then a year at another firm. In 1991 he began a post as deputy counsel for Los Angeles County, and the following year ran for a seat in the California State Assembly representing the state's 46th District, a section of downtown Los Angeles. He served five years in Sacramento as a Democrat, focusing heavily on education issues. His talents earned him a political appointment as managing director and chief operating officer for the Corporation for National Service, the federal grant-making agency that oversees the volunteer-service programs AmeriCorps, the National Senior Service Corps, and Learn and Serve America.
In June of 1998 Caldera was confirmed by Senate vote to serve as secretary of the Army when Clinton's first-term pick, Togo West, left to become secretary for Veterans' Affairs. The Army secretary post is the highest civilian office in this branch of the service; it was once a far more influential post, but after World War II the cabinet posts of the Army and Navy secretariats were combined into a new office, the Department of Defense. Nevertheless, the Army job still carried some major responsibilities: Caldera became leader of roughly one million service personnel—regular Army enlistees and officers, as well as those who serve in the National Guard and Army Reserves—and more than quarter-million civilian employees. He oversaw a budget of $70 billion, and the main focus of his job was to ensure that this branch of the military was combat-ready.
Emphasized and Improved Education Opportunities in Army
Caldera, the 17th Army Secretary in history, began to champion the educational and career opportunities that the Army offered, especially for those whose origins were, like his own, marked by hardship or discrimination. He spoke out frequently on the generous educational benefits that came with military service—a major lure for many recruits—and used his position to improve those offerings during his tenure. "I want soldiers who serve in the Army to walk away with more than just the pride of having served," Caldera told National Journal writer Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr. "I want them to walk away with marketable skills and with the education that they need to be successful."
Some of Caldera's efforts drew controversy, especially his 1999 suggestion that the Army raise its limit of accepting recruits who have earned only their General Equivalency Diplomas, or GEDs. He also promoted a new program called GED Plus, which offered education benefits to qualified recruits who enlisted and then finished their GED. The media jumped on the story, claiming that the Army—which had a recruiting shortfall of some 7,000 in 1999—was now desperate enough to take high-school drop-outs. But Caldera eloquently defended his plan, arguing that a series of tests would be administered to assess non-graduates' fitness for military service. As he explained in a letter to Business Week, "the truth is that many of our most highly decorated soldiers and highest-ranking career enlisted soldiers did not come to us with high school diplomas."
The situation was particularly relevant to young Latino men and women in the United States, Freedberg pointed out in a National Journal article. "Hispanics, who are historically patriotic and eager to enlist, were under-represented in the military because of their high dropout rates," Freedberg noted. "Hispanic leaders, and some academics, argue that the 'quitter' model did not fit an ethnic group whose dropouts often had to work to support impoverished families." Elsewhere in the article, Caldera agreed that a high school diploma was crucial to success in life, and championed the GED Plus program. It was a particular boon to those who came from Spanish-speaking households, like his own, he told Freedberg. His own brothers did not finish high school, and he said that they did go on to do "some college work, but I've seen how much they have struggled throughout their lives because they didn't get the same kind of educational start."
Worked Toward Diversity in Army and Universities
Another of Caldera's significant achievements as Secretary of the Army was the launch of a new program that gave a laptop computer to every new recruit; this also enabled them to take online college courses via the newly-created Army University Access Online. Announced in 2000, the six-year, $600 million program of free computers and subsidized education proved a popular recruiting lure, and Army personnel already involved in continuing-education courses through the University of Maryland's satellite facilities asserted that it lessened the bureaucratic hassles involving registration and other administrative procedures considerably.
Caldera was hopeful that the number of Hispanics in the Army would come to reflect their proportions in the U.S. population, which was projected to reach 25 percent by 2050; in 2000, the Army was just seven percent Hispanic, but the secretary was optimistic about recently improved recruiting numbers as well as a higher proportion of West Point cadets of Hispanic heritage. He stepped forward to chastise a survey of Army personnel that found a high percentage of minorities reporting experiences that could be construed as racially offensive during their service. Caldera pointed out that the Army was the most integrated institution in the United States, and said that during his travels to military bases around the world, he spoke often with soldiers stationed overseas in places like Korea and the Balkans. "They tell me that what they see makes them appreciate the blessings of their country," St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Harry Levins quoted him as saying. "Overseas, they see how people who look alike can nurse ancient hatreds and kill each other. Our soldiers demonstrate to those people, just by their actions, that a society can make multiculturalism work."
Caldera proved such a rising star in Washington that his name was even mentioned in a newsletter from a political group, the Democratic Leadership Council, as a possible running mate for Democrat front-runner Al Gore in 2000. With the election of George W. Bush later that year, however, Caldera left his post along with other Clinton appointees, and took a job with the California State University system as its vice chancellor for university advancement. The job entails serving as the university group's liaison to the community in legislative affairs and public development programs; he was also involved in alumni relations and fundraising efforts. Married to attorney Eva Orlebeke, whom he met at Harvard, Caldera is the father of two. Though his credentials—military service plus the business and law degrees from Harvard—would suggest a possibly lucrative post within the private sector or defense industry, Caldera was uninterested in such a career. "If all you think the world is about just me, how quickly can I get my professional degree and start making my high-paying salary and buy a house in a gated community," he told De la Garza in the St. Petersburg Times, "you're going to miss out on what this whole country is about."
Bond Buyer, September 21, 1993, p. 20; March 16, 1994, p. 1.
Business Week, March 22, 1999, p. 11.
Defense Daily, June 30, 1998; June 19, 2000; December 15, 2000.
Fresno Bee, March 27, 1999, p. A5.
Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1999, p. A1; October 1, 1999, p. A1.
National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2000, p. 8.
National Journal, September 2, 2000, p. 2736.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 9, 1999, p. A4.
St. Petersburg Times, October 3, 2000, p. 1A.
Training, October 2000, p. 35.
U.S. News & World Report, December 7, 1998, p. 11; November 1, 1999, p. 13.
Washington Times, August 31, 1999, p. 1; September 5, 2000, p. 1.
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